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JACK SMITH

What's News? : Why Is It That Only Stories of Unusual, Unfortunate and Unhappy Events Get Reported in the Daily Paper?

December 13, 1987|JACK SMITH

THE QUESTION newspaper people are most often asked is, "Why don't you print more good news?"

The easiest answer is that good news is not news.

"Why not change that man-created myth?" asks Phyllis Siteman. "If there was enough good news in print to compete with the bad news, people would feel less frightened and insecure. . . .

"Since you know people in high places at The Times, why not start a crusade to print more and more good news? Let's stop perpetuating fear."

There have been many definitions of news. Some newspaper people seem to grasp it. Some never learn.

There is a well-worn story about a reporter who was sent out to cover the Johnstown flood and who sent his editor a telegram beginning, "God sits on the mountaintop tonight looking down on a scene of death and destruction in the valley below."

The editor wired back: "Forget flood. Interview God. Rush pictures."

Another story is told of a music critic who was sent to a concert hall in Chicago to review a performance. When he found the hall burning down, he went home and went to bed. In the morning he explained, "There was no story. The concert hall burned down."

I trust these stories are apocryphal, but they serve to illustrate the difficulty of defining news.

There is some truth in the statement that good news is not news. Good news is the stuff of life. It is what happens to most of us most of the time. We survive. We prosper.

But if happiness was all we had to read about, we'd be very bored indeed.

Actually, a large paper like The Times is full of good news. Line for line there is probably more good news than bad news.

But without the bad news it wouldn't be a newspaper.

Bad news isn't always disagreeable. It may be an entertainment. We are not necessarily stricken to read that some New York stockbroker has been brought down by his own greed; our compassion is not deeply aroused by news of an earthquake in some country we can't quite place; we are secretly delighted to read that some head of state or candidate for high office has been caught with his hand in the cookie jar or his shoes under the wrong bed.

Stories of gross crimes are horrifying; we can hardly believe that kidnapers would bury a man alive in a box; that a man would kidnap and murder a series of young women; that robbers would shoot employees of a supermarket; that parents would abuse a child.

But such stories are part of the texture of contemporary life. They remind us of what we are like and who we are. To ban stories of rape, bloodshed, carnage and oppression would be to create an unreality, a make-believe utopia. And no one would believe it.

To some extent, newspapers in oppressed countries are obliged to print only the good news, and the result is that their people are not informed and are not free.

Many readers said they were bored or angered by the Iran-Contra hearings. Did we have to print every word?

In many countries no such hearings could have been held. And they wouldn't have been held here if there had been no press to report them. In that sense, the press does create the news. It keeps a country honest.

Thomas Jefferson seemed to distrust newspapers. "Nothing can now be believed which is seen in a newspaper," he once wrote.

And yet, it was Jefferson who said: "Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter."

Of course he was saying that democracy is impossible without a free press.

You want some good news?

Anne Olmstead of La Crescenta sent me a page from the Vancouver Sun, which reported that the leading addiction among students of Simon Fraser University, near Vancouver, is love.

Bruce Alexander, a Simon Fraser University psychologist who has been studying drug use on the campus, said his surveys show that addiction at SFU is "nothing like what the headlines say it is."

Overall, he said, students are addicted to love first, followed by sports, work, sex, school and self-reflection. Drugs were well down the list.

That's good news. Remember: You read it here.

If God ever does come down to earth, I guarantee you that you'll read about it in The Times. With pictures.

We did all right by the Pope, didn't we?

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